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Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
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Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

4.12 of 5 stars 4.12  ·  rating details  ·  5,269 ratings  ·  511 reviews
In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mothe ...more
Paperback, 10th Anniversary Edition, 314 pages
Published 2001 by Vintage (first published January 1st 1991)
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Abe Brennan
Williams is an especially confounding writer, and part of it has to do with her voice—it’s very assured, but in that certainty lie the seeds of alienation and annoyance. It’s the assurance born of privilege, of money, and of an intact family. She can speak of democracy all she wants (and she does, especially in later works), but she’s at the higher end of the social spectrum—democracy (or any system) tends to work out for those people. Additionally, she tries too hard to wring some elemental tru ...more
Sharon
I hold tight hoping Terry Tempest Williams will devote an entire book to her grandmother. "Refuge" was a beautiful book of love, loss of loved ones, loss of self – and doing what you can to get it all back.

I love the opening of each chapter with the tracking of the elevation of Great Salt Lake during the flood of the 1980s -- how the lake began to embody everything for the author and to all of the people of Salt Lake City. This is a personal story about being part of a bad and a good world comm
...more
Christine
I have lived in Salt Lake City for almost a year. Its a place where family, faith and nature are interwoven into everyday life. Nature and family are important to me, organized religion not so much. I am not a Mormon. However, there is something about living on the edge of the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountain Range that makes you want to reflect on your life and what it means to be close to nature on a spiritual level. Terry Tempest Williams's book, Refuge, is the perfect book for women ...more
Crystal
Yes, this is one of those books that I will list as "amazing" for me. I had a difficult time getting started into this one but I pushed through for several reasons. It was recommended to me by my grad school professor. So, of course, I wanted to read to understand more closely the mind of this mentor and I like the idea of the subtitle "An Unnatural history of Family and Place." I had not heard of Williams previously. Initially it had too much naturalist talk for me and then its other subject ma ...more
Lauren
Jul 18, 2007 Lauren rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone who has lost a parent
Shelves: memoir
This book was listed as "suggested reading" for a nature-writing class that I took in college. The book is about the long, slow death of the author's mother from cancer. In Utah in the 50's, parts of the state were used for nuclear testing. Many people got cancer as a result. It's a sad book, but starkly realistic. Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist, and I actually met her when I lived in Utah. She's lovely. This is a realistic American story of a family tragedy, how our environment can hurt ...more
Rebecca
Reading this book is like... watching the wetland landscape of your childhood home transform and disappear, and watching your mother and beloved grandmother succumb to cancer and die. Just like.

This book was -- stunning. Like a cattle prod between the eyes. And painful. Like crying sand instead of tears.

And so familiar (yes I lived in Utah, yes with all my ancestors' pioneer histories, yes with the pervasive blessing and burden of Mormonism, yes with the inspiring and healing landscapes of moun
...more
Kristen
Terry Tempest Williams is a local author with a transcendent story. Part memoir, Utah history, Audubon guide, and observer, Williams tells the story of the rise of the Great Salt Lake in the 1980's and its destruction of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Alongside this historical and ornithological account, Williams relates her own search for refuge as her mother and grandmother die of cancer, Both "down winder" victims of the nuclear testing in Nevada during the 1950s and early 60s. It is a ...more
Kristy
My copy of this book is covered with notes and underlined passages. Williams uses her intimacy with nature to adeptly describe her intimacy with people, relationships, core beliefs, and life's meaderings. I identified with many of her images and experiences--not because I share her love of birds, but because I share her poet's heart. I am always thinking in parallels and comparisons. It was validating and liberating for me to read of someone else doing the same. I also have seen cancer death up- ...more
Amanda
There is something very different going on in Terry Tempest William's head than my own. Her mother is dying of cancer and she is a scientist who studies birds near Great Salt Lake.

"The pulse of Great Salt Lake, surging along Antelope Island's shores, becomes the force wearing against my mother's body. And when I watch flocks of phalaropes wing their way toward quiet bays on the island, I recall watching Mother sleep, imagining the dreams that were encircling her, wondering what she knows that I
...more
Virginia
Oh, a difficult book. Heart-rending and heart-lifting.

Refuge weaves together two tragedies: a catastrophic flood of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah and the death of Williams's mother from cancer.

Terry Tempest Williams is one of my hero-writers. The solid science of her naturalism is balanced by her mysticism. She writes desert prose from the desert: it can be harsh and unsparing, but there is so much beauty to be had.

Recommended for grievers and bird-watchers.
Kim
This series of essays is written by a woman who happens to be Mormon. The fact she is Mormon seems to do more with geography in this book, than by choice. It is a wonderful series of essays because she is a naturalist in writing. The Salt Lake and the environment around there take on almost a divine beauty in the way she describes it. There are some poignant, wonderful tender essays about the land, and her mother and her writing style is just that - tender.
Alissa
I first read this book in 2000, and I knew it was "good," but it didn't draw me in. I've taught her epilogue, "Clan of the One-Breasted Women," several times, and I'm rereading *Refuge* because I assigned it.

It is brilliant. Tempest Williams writes, about her mother's ovarian cancer--and that of her grandmothers and aunts--which Tempest Williams believes was caused by nuclear testing. But it's about more than that: it's about how the land and water are tied so closely to our bodies and the dest
...more
Karen deVries
With Mitt Romney running for President, Mormons are in the media spotlight, and this is how I encountered Terry Tempest Williams. I heard an interview with her on one of my favorite radio shows (OnBeing). The interview was so compelling that I looked for her books at a used bookstore, and this is the one they had. Now that I'm well into a few other books by her, this one seems like as good a place as any to start. Terry Tempest Williams is a conservationist,a writer, a daughter, and a Mormon liv ...more
Jennifer W
Why do I torture myself reading sad tales of mothers and daughters? I'm pretty sure it's a sign that I'm sick in the head. However, to redeem myself slightly, this one had an interesting twist. The author is a natrualist and conservationist. Her great outdoors is a wildlife refuge on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Her passion, birds. During the tough years that her mother was battling cancer, she sought sanctuary in nature. Unfortunately for her, her mother wasn't the only sick one; Great Salt Lak ...more
Jamie
Oct 18, 2014 Jamie marked it as abandoned
There isn’t a word of dialogue that sounds like the way people talk. It sounds like the way people talk on TV, and maybe the rest of it is honest (is it?) but that’s dishonest and it’s getting under my skin right now.
Shuhui
A moving autobiography of a woman and her relationship with her mother. Her mother's cancer challenges yet affirms their connection to the natural world of Salt Lake and their Mormon faith. Through this difficult journey, Terry begins to understand the meaning of living in the present, death, and the ever-rising levels of Salt Lake, which threatens the bounty of wildlife nearby.

Some quotes:
“Why couldn’t I have respected her belief that the outcome mattered less than the gift of each day…We had w
...more
Shari Zimmerman

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place is a parallel account of the demise of the author's beloved Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge during years of unprecedented flood of the Great Salt Lake and the simultaneous story of her close-knit Mormon family's walk through her mother's illness and death from cancer. It's hard to say how two such sad subjects can create a book that brings so much hope. The sweetest part of the account is how Terry Tempest Williams and her mother and grandmother
...more
Marlène
Remarquant l'absence de femmes dans ma courte liste "lu" de nature writing, je suis allée jeter un œil dans ma liste "à lire", toujours de nature writing, pour remédier à ce manque et pour varier le point de vue. Peu de références... mais voilà que Terry Tempest Williams ne cesse de me faire de l’œil et se trouve à la bibliothèque universitaire d'anglais. Peu de références. Surtout des études de ses textes, ou un texte par-ci par-là parmi des recueils. Un seul tome, Refuge: An Unnatural History ...more
Shelley
May 17, 2007 Shelley rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Lovers of Desert Solitare and people affected by cancer.
I read this book some time ago and am re-reading it now as a dear friend undergoes treatment for breast cancer. The author writes about the wildlife of the Great Salt Lake and her family's journey during her mother's cancer treatment. The intersections of the crisis of wildlife and human life are amazing. Williams is a talented writer and devoted naturalist. She is also a Mormon and the geography of her book will be familiar to other LDS members.
Amie
This is a terrific book. She writes beautifully weaving together themes of family, life and death, faith and environmental issues all built on the backdrop of the Great Salt Lake.
Catherine Stirling
I really, really recommend this fantastic book -- written by one-of-a-kind naturalist and daughter of Utah (yea!) Terry Tempest Williams. In the book, she follows two simultaneous events -- a colossal flooding of Utah's wetlands (she and her grandmother are avid birdwatchers), and her mother's battle with cancer -- and the way she blends the two is unbelievably, heartbreakingly beautiful.
Celeste
Sep 30, 2007 Celeste rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: nature enthusists, cancer patients and families of cancer patients
Beautiful story interweaving a family's struggle with cancer and the observations of some of the birds of Utah. Very thoughtful and well written. Interesting side note....After we read this for a high school English class, this book was banned from my school's English classes after some Mormon families complained about it although I don't remember it to be anti-Mormon.
Ms. Dumonet
this is no conventional book by a conventional author- it is written by a fierce nature lover and serious nature writer. though nature writing is not my favorite genre, tempest williams reached me in a way no author ever has. i've turned to this book like i would turn to a best friend over the past few years- it's always as good as i remember it.
WM Rine
Wow. I have never read another book like this. Keenly observed. Brimming with intimate knowledge of a place, the bird habitat around the Great Salt Lake in Utah during a time where the lake was overspreading its usual banks. Multiple layers of metaphor with that incident, and the state of Utah's response to it, set against Terry Tempest Williams' mother's slow death from cancer. I've been on a journey like this with my own mother -- well, not half the journey Williams manages. The members of her ...more
Nancy
so far I'm loving it -- engaging, but a difficult read considering my mother just passed away...

Probably one of my favorite books of all time -- and I have no interest in birds. But it's about love/death/relationships all set in the background of Utah. Non-fiction. Her writing is so powerful and so simple at the same time.
Paty
I'm not reading it word by word, but as I skim through it I can honestly say it is a very special book.
Written by a daughter whose mother has cancer and the relationship they develop because of the illness. Has some really nice philosophical thoughts about nature and humans.
Joell
It's a thoughtful memoir of the parallels between our natural world and how we interact with it. But Tempest's voice can get too wistful for me - too much use of the passive voice and she skips from place to place in a way that is hard to follow. But it was her story to tell and she told it as she needed to. I liked the measure of the Great Salt Lake as a barometer for the story. But isn't that the case with most memoirs?

Part of my disconnect was having lived in the area as a kid and now living
...more
Emily
In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams tells two overlapping stories that enrich and inform each other. One describes the environmental havoc wreaked in and around the Great Salt Lake, particularly as it affected the bird populations, as water levels reached abnormal highs in the 1980s. The other chronicles her mother's struggle with cancer and the family's struggle coming to terms with their matriarch's illness and eventual death. In her words, "an individua ...more
franciszka
here’s what i liked, especially in the beginning: species of birds as section headings (and the list of species at the back of the book), lake levels for each chapter, the weaving of the bird stories, the family/mother story, the lake and land stories, the sciencey/geographyness mixed in with memoir/living experience. i also loved the mixing in of witchy/woo/mysticism (dreams, astrology, rituals).

here’s what i didn’t notice at first, but then became more apparent to me as time went on (and i did
...more
HeavyReader
I read this book nearly ten years ago. My sister gave it to me.

It is beautifully written, and I really enjoyed reading it, although I can't fully remember what it is about now. Environmentalism? Cancer? Utah?
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Terry Tempest Williams is an American author, conservationist and activist. Williams’ writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of her native Utah in which she was raised. Her work ranges from issues of ecology and wilderness preservation, to women's health, to exploring our relationship to culture and nature.

She has testified before Congres
...more
More about Terry Tempest Williams...
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field Finding Beauty in a Broken World Leap

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